Digital Longevity

Since today I was handed an article entitled saving games and then saw this article from IGN’s Mitch Dyer arguing that games can’t last, it seems that the universe is pushing me to address the seeming “issue” of videogame impermanence. Dyer says that his kids “will never know what Gears of War: Judgment is. They will never wonder what Killzone: Shadow Fall was like, they will never play The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and they will never ask me about Grand Theft Auto V.” And that may be true. It also may not.

As my students (in my Games, Game Theory, and Leadership Studies class) could tell him, some games do last the test of time. Pac-Man, for instance, has been re-released, ported, and updated on every available console, computer, and phone, despite being originally released for arcade-only play by Namco in 1979. That’s pretty good longevity. Pong (found on phones, calculators, and computers world-wide) was released by Atari in 1972.

Sure, that’s forty-some years which pale in comparison to Shakespeare’s 400-some, but we’ve also lost some of Shakespeare’s plays (Love’s Labours Won and Cardenio, at least), and who knows how much literature from Chaucer’s and the Pearl Poet’s respective eras. We’ve kept Agatha Christie, but there are dozens if not hundreds of murder mystery authors who have fallen by the proverbial wayside, unremembered, unpublished (any more), and unread. Musical instruments and genres move into and out of fashion, some lost, some preserved, some remaining popular despite the steady march of chronology.

My point is really that we aren’t yet in any historical position to make claims about the permanence or impermanence of games, particularly – as Dyer does – in comparison to a genre (literature) that has been around since humans learned to string together words to form a narrative. And we don’t have any of THOSE stories, either. The earliest examples of a genre don’t last – in that, Dyer may have a point. Few people watch the first-ever film (made by Edison, it’s horribly fuzzy but can in fact be found on YouTube), comparatively speaking, and fewer still watch many of the early examples not preserved in “collections.” There are hundreds of rolls of cellulite film that dissolve into nothingness every day, just as there are books that disintegrate into dust.

Videogames are still a young genre, one that was invented in the lifetimes of all adults over the age of forty-five. Forty-five years is not nearly long enough to make an assertion like the one Dyer makes. It’s also fundamentally flawed in its comparison. Literature has been an established genre for centuries, and its one that has shaped our culture into its present form. Film is growing into a similarly powerful presence. As will – I would suggest – videogames. Mario, Zelda, Pac-Man, and Space Invaders will one day be introduced as the forerunners of the Tale of Two Cities of videogames (which, I would think, hasn’t yet been made). World of Warcraft and Call of Duty will appear on syllabi as games that reshaped digital culture and birthed massive online communities, breaking down national and cultural barriers by integrating people from around the world into guilds and teams all focused on a common goal.

We aren’t yet at the place in videogaming creation where we have the capacity to create a game-Hamlet (although there are some games out there about Hamlet) that will endure into future generations. We’re still learning about our technological capacity, learning about how to integrate narrative and ludology, still experimenting with form and function in a society that is adapting to the pervasiveness of digital media into what was, not so long ago, an analog world.

Yes, the technology become obsolete, the graphics “crude” in two or five or ten years. Yes, our technological capacity increases almost exponentially from year to year, console generation to console generation. But that doesn’t mean that games can’t hold our attention or critical capacity far into the future. Dyer’s point – that even Vice City has become “after just a few years, a messy, clunky thing.” But compare the most recent film version of Hamlet to the set-less, hastily memorized disaster area that Shakespeare’s first production of it must have been.

Videogames are no more transient than plays, than films, than television series, than poetry, than music. They are simply different, with different challenges, different media, different limitations. Yes, some of them will disappear, brought to uselessness by the deterioration of technology, storage media, or disuse. The same is true of all genres of art and culture. But some of them will endure, not because of their graphics, but because they speak to us about our culture, our society, our hopes and our dreams, our fantasies and fears.

Our children may not play GTAV (personally, I hope they don’t), but they might play Journey or Mass Effect or Gone Home. They might play World of Warcraft or Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption or Bioshock. They might not. Maybe our games – our early twenty-first century games – are not the games that will last, but I would bet that some of them are. They will persist, just as Hamlet or The Tale of Two Cities persist. Just as Casablanca or Psycho persist. They will persists because they present us as a complex society capable of both great kindness and great cruelty, they ask the difficult questions, force us (as players) to make the difficult choices. They will last because they are an essential part of our new digital culture. In other words, art.